Northam asks lawmakers to delay collective bargaining bill

Northam asks lawmakers to delay collective bargaining bill

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia’s local governments need flexibility and focus. A collective bargaining bill rushed to Northam’s desk would do the opposite.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Ralph Northam wants to delay a rushed proposal that would burden local governments and come between public employers and employees.

That means local government collective bargaining is probably on hold in Virginia, for now. And the temporary delay should give lawmakers pause about ever letting the provision going into effect.

Decreased flexibility and increased distractions at the worst possible time

Collective bargaining inserts political government-worker labor unions into contract negotiations between public employees and local governments, with taxpayers on the hook for higher costs. Worse, the hastily amended Virginia bill could overwhelm local governments with requests to recognize bargaining. The legislation as currently written places no limits on the size of potential unions or the numbers of times they can demand local governments recognize them.

Narrow majorities in both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly approved legislation late in session allowing for local government collective bargaining.

This happened before the COVID-19 pandemic had firmly taken hold in the United States. Now, with local governments concerned about collective bargaining increasing the cost of government at a time when their coffers are rapidly depleting and decreasing their flexibility to respond to the crisis, Gov. Ralph Northam recognized it would be an inopportune time to implement the collective bargaining bill. He sent the General Assembly an amendment that would move the effective date of the bill from July 1, 2020, to May 1, 2021, a 10-month delay.

State lawmakers will meet to take up the governor’s amendments and vetoes on April 22, with the House of Delegates convening outdoors on the Capitol grounds and the Senate of Virginia meeting outside the Science Museum in an effort to facilitate social distancing during voting.

They are unlikely to distance themselves from the governor’s recommendation.

Next steps for Northam and state lawmakers

If lawmakers accept the governor’s recommendation delaying enactment of SB 939, the collective bargaining bill, this constitutes final action on the bill and it would take effect in May 2021. If they reject the amendment, the governor has another 30 days to decide whether to sign or veto the bill with its original enactment date of July 1, 2020, while Virginia will still be dealing with the economic fallout, and quite possibly still the public health crisis, of the COVID-19 pandemic. Should he veto it, the legislature has no further recourse.

Theoretically, the legislature could get out in front of a potential veto by rejecting the amendment and then voting to engross the bill in its current form, a vote which – like a veto override – takes a two-thirds supermajority. Such a vote would also constitute final action. The governor could not veto it. However, as the bill passed both chambers only narrowly, a supermajority vote is improbable.

Practically, lawmakers face two choices: 1) Join the governor in embracing a 10-month enactment delay; or 2) Reject the amendment and leave him with the choice of implementing collective bargaining provisions during the pandemic or not at all.

Considering the consequences

This bill would be a nightmare for local governments whenever it takes effect. It would bog local governments down with an almost limitless number of local bargaining units and force local governments to confront the bargaining issue over and over again. Further, it could increase employment costs by 15% in localities where it is implemented.

That’s an enormous challenge for local governments in the best of times. It’s hard to imagine imposing this burden now, during a public health and economic crisis that has already seen local revenues begin to dry up.

If lawmakers conclude that a pause is appropriate, they might wish to consider next year whether a policy that is too risky now is really worth pursuing later.

Proponents have argued that the bill gives local governments an adequate opportunity to say no to collective bargaining, and that the costs of such bargaining won’t be formidable. The acknowledgment of how damaging a collective bargaining law could be under the current circumstances, however, belies the notion that it doesn’t impose significant burdens on localities and their taxpayers.

And while it is surely worse to adopt those burdens during a crisis, when lawmakers return to session in 2021, they might well ask themselves: Why would we want to accept those burdens at all?

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